Assembled at the fork in the road by the entrance to Choquequirao we stand idle waiting for the gentleman and his mule to arrive. It is 7am and we sheepishly linger beside our backpacks and hiking equipment as curious local workers pass. They have intrigue burning in their retinas and sharp questions on the tips of their tongues. Clearly perplexed by the inexplicable early hour in which we are here they quiz us on where we camped the previous night.
One of the workers is seemingly aware of the situation though chooses not to pursue it any further alleviating the built-up tension. It has diffused by the time the man and his mule arrive. A closer inspection of the mule reveals it is in fact a horse, yet there is little time to quibble over the subtle genealogical differences. At this stage, after two days of carrying more weight than I would like, it is difficult to feign empathy towards the horse as I unload my backpack. I flick it a quick guilty glance coupled with a ‘phww.. work’ look, though the animal appears unimpressed as I place tent and cooking equipment onto its saddlebag.
Setting off we have a short steep climb through the clouds before a massive descent that zigzags down the valley all the way back to roughly 1500m. Bounding down the hill the mind wonders and tumbles with each loose foothold. Stones bounce of in a myriad of unconnected ways just like thoughts. The uphill sections are different. Each foot is rooted to the ground. With power and purpose I stick a foot in position, feel the strain on my laden legs, and push up with force. The mind begins to build strong connections to ideas offering a chance to feel the physical exertion and explode through it to a point of euphoria as the endorphins release.
The descents are much tougher on the knees, body and mind. Enormous pressure and strain build with little room for discharge. Tortured thoughts and lack of direction plague the mind as you continue downhill on what should in theory be the easier path.
During a tough ascent my thoughts get snagged on an interesting dynamic that ensnares our little group. There is such power with technology that even in areas where you would assume satellite signal is non-existent, there are still means to check the map and typography of the approaching terrain. In one vein this appears arguably quite important. Yet, on the opposite side, it seems completely otiose. When faced with the stark reality that you are at point A and the only way to reach point B is to walk then what does knowing what lies ahead really do? I would argue that it only serves to tear you from the present moment and focus on a perceived future state. Shaping thought and anchoring mood, the preconceived expectations, annoyances or reliefs, only distort present reality, and thus are corrosive to the trek.
With one eye firmly focused on the map and the other imaging what is around the corner you simply cannot enjoy the beauty around you. Tiny moments of joy are procured in the minutest of details and variances in a constantly unfolding and alien landscape. The trouble with technology is its power to remove despite the flagrant belief that it simply connects. Staring into the cold glass of the phone dilutes the immediate experience and surrounding situation that we are surely seeking, otherwise why else would we be here?
I state rather facetiously that if people want to continue using Google Map to navigate every kink in the trail and change in altitude then they can do so without me. I would rather follow my own, and let’s be honest, myopic planning, that leads to more blundering and arguably more interesting decision-making processes.
As my feet pound the path like a bakers fist to dough my thoughts rise and expand. The problem with technology is also mirrored when it comes to photography. On a previous trek just one-week prior I wore two cameras like two young sloths clung to my neck. I would take countless pictures as if I unwittingly knew that it would all be gone tomorrow. It was only when a friend asked who my pictures were for I was forced into an uncomfortable epiphany. Who are they for? Perhaps the folder and all it contents will be lost to a Flat White spilt on the computer keys. Or buried deeper than Tutankhamun’s’ tomb in some locked file that they end up going unseen and unedited like all the others for years before loosing them again to an altogether freak coffee saga incident. If that were case, then the 150 plus pictures I’ve taken in the first hour only aided in removing me from the present to engage in some future act of gratification. Pictures and photography are not bad mediums; they are in fact brilliant, often artistic reflections of precious moments. I’m not advocating that we stop taking pictures, rather we are certain as to why and what we are doing it for.
To choquequirao I brought just my analogue camera. With only 36 slides per roll each picture evokes a modicum of foresight and a want to preserve the moment. I feel a freedom this time around, not held by the belief I ought to be taking more pictures, rather just enjoying my immediate surroundings and taking pictures only when I feel there is something genuinely worth preserving.
The ascent is monstrous and I love it. There are a couple of crossroads and uncomfortable decisions to be made but we later realise that all roads lead to the campground. The horse and man have dropped off our gear in Maizal, making a substantial difference to what was touted to be our most difficult day. We collectively crash to the floor, our bodies drained like an old Victorian bath laced with cracks. I order dinner for the evening not before eating two portions of instant noodles. Inviting the others to the small home, littered with guinea pigs, and dimly illuminated by a single weak light, we each sit before 250g of pasta, smeared once more in tiny salty flakes of tuna. I realise it is literally the last thing I can eat. Feeling somewhat responsible for the error, my Spanish less fluent than the others, I retire off to bed, placing my pasta into a carrier bag to be eaten tomorrow.
By Liam McGuckin